For FC Pune City, it is a point of no return. In the short history of the Indian Super League (ISL), a points threshold to qualify for the playoffs has been established. Nineteen points did the job in ISL-1, while 20 points were not enough for NorthEast United last year. Pune this season cannot reach that tally, as a 2-1 defeat to Kerala Blasters all but put an end to their playoffs hopes.
Dubbed as a six-pointer, the game became tailor-made for Kerala to strengthen their top four prospects as early as the seventh minute. When Duckens Nazon put the Blasters ahead early on, the game was as good as won for the home side. In front of a frenzied crowd, Pune had little chance to stop Kerala, who had won three on the bounce at home and looked to make ISL history with a fourth.
The Stallions were powerless as the hosts started like a train from kick off. While Kerala's front four of Nazon, Kervens Belfort, CK Vineeth and Mohammed Rafi attacked from all angles, Pune's all-Indian back four wilted under the early pressure.
There was no Eduardo, dropped to accommodate right-back Rahul Bheke, at the back for FC Pune City. Eduardo's handball in the last game cost the Stallions three points. Here his absence cost them another three, and with that a place in the playoffs.
The sense of unease about Indian centre-backs refuses to go away. The best teams of ISL-3 thus far have had the luxury of a commanding non-Indian centre-back: Aaron Hughes for Kerala, Lucian Goian for Mumbai City, Ruben Rocha for Delhi Dynamos. Dharmaraj Ravanan's calamitous mistake here may be a one-off, but it left Pune with a mountain to climb, to which they didn't even come close.
Ninety-six minutes at the jam-packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium summed up Pune City's season. They started on the back foot, went further back with an error, came back slowly without truly coming back, and had a consolation which was a little too late.
It is debatable whether better personnel choices would have resulted in better results. Pune's season looked in crisis when Eidur Gudjohnsen and Andre Bikey pulled out in pre-season; 13 games later, Pune are still in crisis.
Credit, though, must go to Kerala for keeping it tight down the centre. Their double pivot of Azrack Mahamat and Mehtab Hossain kept their discipline in midfield denying space in central areas. In contrast, Pune's central midfielders - Jonatan Lucca and Mohamed Sissoko - were caught in the middle of nowhere. They could neither help their team in attack nor prevent Kerala's front four from running riot.
Half-time substitute Momar Ndoye promised for a few second half minutes, but he was also eventually shut out. Everything on the night seemed to work for Kerala. Their second goal, a close range header from Hughes, came about from a miscued cross from Vineeth.
Kerala's four straight home wins should serve as a lesson for Pune that having a solid home record is imperative in ISL. The Orange-Purples won none of their opening five home matches which is one of the key factors that aided their current plight.
The Stallions now head to Kolkata for their final match of the season next Friday. They aren't mathematically out of the top four reckoning, but the playoffs looks a bridge too far this season. It would need a miracle for the game in Kolkata to not be of academic interest to Pune.
Updated Date: Nov 26, 2016 11:41 AM